EU migration showdown: divide deepens after Brussels launches legal action against Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic
The European Union has announced legal proceedings against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in a move that threatens to deepen the EU’s east-west divide over migration policy.
The move against the three eastern member states by the European Commission came after they refused to accept any migrants as part of an EU-wide relocation plan for 160,000 migrants.
In a statement, the European Commission said it was launching the cases after “repeated calls” on the three to pledge to accept the migrant quotas, all of which had been ignored. “Against this background ... the Commission has decided to launch infringement procedures against these three Member States,” it said.
The three states - which all immediately rejected the EU decision - could face fines and other sanctions, although the process, if it comes to anything, is expected to take many months, or even years.
The decision to push ahead with the infringement proceedings marks a sharp escalation in the disagreement over how to handle migration which was sparked by the 2015 migration crisis that saw a million migrants pouring into Europe via Greece and Italy.
So far the EU has managed to relocate fewer than 21,000 migrants since the policy was introduced.
The split has deepened since September 2015 when western EU powers, led by Germany and France, forced through a relocation plan for 120,000 refugees using a qualified majority vote. The move broke with longstanding conventions that such sensitive matters be decided by consensus.
Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, who has said he is proud to be creating an ‘illiberal democracy’, has led the eastern resistance, publicly attacking Brussels for trying to impose its will on member states.
To make his point, Mr Orban and his right-wing ruling Fidesz party held a referendum in Hungary last October in which some 95% of those who voted rejected the quotas.
"We will not give in to blackmail from Brussels,” Mr Orban said ahead of the Commission decision in a speech to Hungary's parliament on Monday. “We reject the mandatory relocation quota.”
In a further show of defiance towards Brussels, Hungary’s parliament has approved strict new rules for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that critics has said are designed to target liberal educational institutions and civil rights groups critical of the government.
Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister, said that most of those who came to Europe were immigrants, not refugees and, in any case, did not want to live in Poland. “We would have [to relocate them] by force,” he said. “Then in Poland, we would have to keep them in camps as well.”
Milan Chovanec, the Czech interior minister, accused the EU of “putting its head in the sand” if it thought any refugees forced upon his country would stay rather than moving onto more prosperous countries to the west.
A previous attempt by the EU to sanction a member state ended in disarray in 2000 when diplomatic sanctions were imposed on Austria after it allowed the far-Right Freedom Party (FPO) into government.The measures were quickly dropped after they stirred anti-EU sentiment.
Analysts said that the latest Commission decision was unlikely to change the approach in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic where anti-immigration policies are highly popular with voters.
“This is bread and water for these countries, politically speaking,” said Andrius Tursa, central and eastern adviser at Teneo Intelligence, the risk consultancy. “If the EU steps up these kinds of procedures the popular backlash will be very strong.”
"There are no winners in this spat over the re-location policy," added Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, eastern EU expect at the Centre for European Reform, the London think-tank, predicting that case could ultimately reach the European Court of Justice.
It could also cause richer EU member states to threaten to cut funds to recalcitrant eastern states when the next budget came up for negotiation in 2020, risking a further backlash against the European Commission.
"The public will almost certainly see its actions as an attack on the countries’ sovereignty. Governments will probably reinforce this perception by their domestic narrative," she added.